I have recently completed Beginning and Advanced freediving courses on Koh Tao in Thailand. The courses have made me a much better scuba diver and were one of the most rewarding learning experiences I have had in recent years.
Disclaimer: I hope that after reading the following post you decide to try freediving for yourself. However, the warnings you read about ~never~ freediving without competent supervision are not the standard small print. There were instances during my course where if I had not been with a capable safety diver, my life could have been at risk. Please try this but please try it with professional supervision.
What is Freediving?
Freediving in general is diving underwater by holding your breath. The most visible and organized forms of freediving are the competitive disciplines governed by International Association for Development of Apnea (AIDA)
and CMAS. The disciplines that we touched on in the courses included:
Static Apnea – Breath holding while you are not moving. Competitive attempts are done with your face under the water in a pool or other confined water.
Constant Weight Apnea – Diving with a guide line that you cannot use to assist you (by pulling on it) and the diver is not allowed to drop weights during the dive. There are ‘With Fins’ and ‘Without Fins’ versions of this.
Free Immersion Apnea – Diving with a vertical guide line that you CAN use to pull yourself up and down with.
The idea of trying freediving first came to me as I was touring ProDive International’s offices in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and my guide pointed out the offices of Performance Freediving. I did not think much about it at the time other than, “hmm, that might be cool.” However, after that it was one of those ideas where you keep seeing subtle reminders. Those great shots in Sharkwater of Rob Stewart freediving in crystal clear water with the sharks. Paul Walker looking half dolphin, saving the day and getting the girl in “Into the Blue“. The clincher for me however came in Malaysia when I surfaced from a 40M dive and my buddy had used 50% less air than me.
Now, my air consumption is not superhuman or anything but it’s below average and a 50% difference got my attention. When I asked him how he did it, the answer which you probably can easily guess was “freediving”. I proceeded to question him about this for the entire boat trip back to the island. With ideas about respiration rates, breathing techniques, yoga, and more swimming in my head, I had become convinced I needed to see for myself what this was all about.
As luck would have it, my next destination was Thailand and
the only one of the only freediving schools in SE Asia is on the island of Koh Tao and is called Apnea Total.
I arrived on Koh Tao and was enrolled in a Basic Freediving course with Apnea Total the very next day. Their beginning course is 2 days long and teaches you to dive safely to a depth of up to 20M (66ft). The course starts out with a general discussion of freediving, the equipment involved, and the various disciplines.
Then, you get into the good stuff and immediately learn why hyperventilation, as you might have tried when attempting to hold your breath, can be a bad thing while freediving. (It raises your heart rate and
overloads your system with oxygen reduces the concentration of CO2 in your system making it easy to hold your breath in the beginning but hard in the end and makes you susceptible to ‘shallow water blackout’.) The correct beginning breathe-up technique is slow and starts from low in the abdomen and finishes in the chest. The exhale is long and slow to help you relax and lower your heart rate.
On the first day we practiced ‘duck-diving’ and began to see what a difference being efficient in the water makes. The muscles in your legs are some of the largest in your body and they use a lot of oxygen. Using them efficiently is one of the keys to success.
This video of William Trubridge freediving (with no fins!!) “The Arch” at the blue hole in Dahab, Egypt is one of the finest examples of efficiency I have ever seen. The Arch is a 30 meter long tunnel connecting the blue hole with the Red Sea at a depth of 58M (190ft) (!!!). Watch how efficient his strokes are until he becomes negatively buoyant (lungs compress enough around 20M) and he goes into free fall and glides lower with no effort. This is truly an amazing video. (If you are reading this on facebook you can see the video on YouTube.)
More In Depth Topics
Continuing on from the initial parts of the course the topics kept getting more and more interesting.
Pranayama – Yogic Breathing
We went on to learn more advanced breathe-up techniques as well as yogic breathing or pranayama. After we were taught a couple of the simple pranayama exercises I began to do them in the morning before going to class. I was amazed at how good I felt after doing these exercises.
The first technique we learned was called a kapalabhati and you can see a description at Yoga Journal. The second technique was called Anuloma Viloma or ‘alternate nostril breathing’. You can see a good description of that on the ABC of Yoga site.
Try these techniques for a few days and see if you do not end up doing the same thing that I did, googling for more information and trying to find a book to learn more! One of the most popular seems to be Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar.
The Brain Game
The second surprising and fascinating part of the course for me was just how much of freediving is controlled by your brain. This is BOTH physical AND mental. Your brain consumes 30-40% of the oxygen in EVERY breath you take. Think about that for a second…and as you think about that…your brain is using MORE oxygen!
As you prepare for a breath holding exercise the breathe-up has a lot of goals. You want to saturate your tissues with oxygen, relax and slow your heart rate, and begin to ‘calm’ the mind. This is the same as the ‘efficiency’ I mentioned above except amazingly it’s not about using your muscles efficiently but rather the 30-40% of your oxygen being used by the stuff between your ears.
I began to notice the mental aspects of freediving on the second day of course. I noticed that it made a huge difference when I simply ‘felt right’ before attempting a dive. However, during the Advanced Course is when I got my first real lesson in exactly what your mind and brain are capable of in apnea exercises.
Have you ever tried to hold your breath a long time and towards the end you start to get little ‘hiccup’ types of contractions? Well, these contractions and the generally uncomfortable feeling of not breathing when your body really wants more oxygen are the realm where the mental game is played. These contractions, contrary to what I used to think, are not you knocking on death’s door but rather, as my instructor was fond of saying, “your very good friends coming to help you”. These contractions are your body’s way of getting the remaining oxygen you have in your system distributed around your body. Your breath hold exercise can continue for a minute or more after these contractions start IF you can stay calm.
So, it is here that you start to sense the ‘zen’ of freediving. Your mind is what gets you in the end.
As I said, before I started the course one of my main goals was to improve my scuba diving. On that front, the results were tremendously better than I could have ever expected. Even on my first scuba dive after the course, my air consumption had improved. How did I do it? Long, very slow deep breaths starting in the abdomen and finishing in the chest. What does this do? Your respiration rate is lower and the air that you take into your lungs goes first to the lower and more capillary-rich parts of your lungs. I expect this to improve more with practice.
The second part was a bonus that I had not expected. I became much more comfortable with knowing what I’m capable of underwater. All of the sudden a swim to track down a straying buddy “in the unlikely event” of an out of air situation even on half a breath does not seem so daunting. In other words, I think that my freediving experience has made a ‘panic’ situation a lot less likely. That’s a great thing.
If my experience is any indication I think setups like Performance Freediving sharing offices with ProDive International will become common. There is simply too much that the sports have to gain from one another. I also think that getting a freediving instructor rating is a great way for scuba diving instructors to differentiate themselves and open up a whole new line of business for the shops they work at.
Just the Facts
When we started the course the instructor was careful to point out that this course was ‘not about the numbers’. Our goals were to learn good techniques and focus on the foundations of good freediving rather than exclusively on ‘how long’ and ‘how deep’. I have to admit that at the end of the course, this statement was MUCH more clear to me than at the beginning. My favorite aspects ended up being how good I felt physically and being introduced to the mental aspects of the sport rather than the simple ‘numbers’.
It is interesting to see what one ordinary person can achieve after 5 days of competent instruction though. Before the course, the longest I had ever held my breath was around 2 minutes 30 seconds. After a proper breathe-up and discovering that thinking about college football is what keeps me the calmest, I held my breath for 4 minutes and 51 seconds.
On the first day of the basic course I was stopping at less than 10 meters when I felt the first pangs of ‘discomfort’. On the second day of the basic course I was able to go down to 20 meters (66ft), stayed calm and relaxed for a 20 second count and made my way back up the line. On the final day of the Advanced Course I made it to 34.4M (113 ft) on a single breath.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy you being here and saying to yourself, “Wow, almost 5 minutes!!” but it just wouldn’t be fair not to show you what people are ~really~ capable of. Check out the current records on the AIDA website.
Some of the current highlights:
Static Apnea – 11 min 35 secs by Stephane Mifsud
Free Immersion – 120M by Herbert Nitsch
Constant Weight – 124M by Herbert Nitsch
This video shows Erin Magee of Performance Freediving setting the US Women’s Record for Constant Weight just a couple of weeks ago in the Cayman Islands. (Readers on Facebook can see the video here).
Hold your breath for at least 4 minutes. Dive down to wave to your tech diving pals at 40 meters and surface on a single breath. Improve your air consumption while scuba diving. Improve your breathing while just doing…..anything! Learn to focus your mind and see what you body is really capable of doing. Take photos at 20 meters without those annoying bubbles to scare the fish away.
Have I convinced you yet? Try freediving. You will love it.